William Matheny: Strange Constellations
Misra Records – 19 May 2017 (UK)
Hailing from West Virginia, William Matheny has actually been around for some years and, while Strange Constellation may be his first solo album under his given name, he actually made his self-released debut as Billy Matheny back in 2004 and followed that up with a second in 2006. In addition to which he was a multi-instrumentalist with Athens folk-rock outfit Southern Engine and also plays keyboards and guitar for Washington garage rock outfit The Paranoid Style.
However, given those two limited release early recordings have vanished into obscurity, to all intents and purposes, this is his first time in his own spotlight as singer-songwriter, delivering a solid collection of roots rock and countrified pop that has seen him likened to Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Marshall Crenshaw, and Jackson Browne.
Although keyboards play an inevitable part and there are horn flourishes, this is very much a guitar driven album. The opening track, Teenage Bones, is decidedly of the 80s guitar-led power pop persuasion, full of tumbling melodies and hooks. Likewise the mid-paced stomp of God’s Left Hand, though here the guitars have a throatier southern country sound with the song coming over as part Lynyrd Skynrd and part Steve Earle (it’s surely no accident it musically echoes The Devil’s Right Hand), while Out For Revenge is a lolloping country rockabilly roller that has a touch of Chuck Berry to its DNA.
There’s just two slow numbers the first of which doesn’t appear until track six with My Grandfather Knew Stoney Cooper, a five-minute piano slow waltz ballad which there’s no reason to believe is not an autobiographical memoir about his grandfather, apparently once been a sort of guitar tech for the titular Cooper, a Grand Old Opry star and one of country’s biggest names from the 40s to the 60s, although the song’s narrative takes in far more than that. The second is another slow piano waltz, the late night soulful regret-stained Foolish Of Me, a number that swells mid-way on a mix of harmonised slide and ‘oohing’ background vocals like a classic 60s ballad.
Otherwise, this is uptempo, punchy stuff designed to fill tavern dance floors where denim and big boots are the dress code. Living Half To Death a strident Pettyesque chugger, Blood Moon Singer with its George Harrison-like intro and a ringing mid-section guitar solo adopting an almost identical rhythm, 29 Candles surging at a punky windmilling rush that reminded me of Jason and the Scorchers and Man Of Science all Stonesy swagger and bluesy riffs.
By complete contrast to all this, Funny Papers is firmly in the classic old-school mould of George Jones meets Gram Parsons with its saloon piano and Bud Darroll on pedal steel, leaving things to close with the ringing guitars and tumbling chords of moving on/break up number (I Pray) You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone with its gathering pace and building to a rousing twangsome climax.
The more I listen, the better it sounds, and it sounded pretty damn fine the first time. There’s a new star in the firmament.
The UK bonus track digital version of the album also features a great cover of Jason Molina‘s Just Be Simple which you can listen to below: